E. M. Forster's "My Wood"
A few years ago I wrote a book which dealt in part with the difficulties of the English in India1. Feeling that they would have had no difficulties in India themselves, the Americans read the book freely. The more they read it the better it made them feel, and a cheque to the author was the result. I bought a wood with the cheque. It is not a large wood--it contains scarcely any trees, and it is intersected, blast it, by a public foot-path. Still, it is the first property that I have owned, so it is right that other people should participate in my shame, and should ask themselves, in accents that will vary in horror, this very important question: What is the effect of property upon the character? Don't let's touch economics; the effect of private ownership upon the community as a whole is another question--a more important question, perhaps, but another one. Let's keep to psychology. If you own things, what's their effect on you? What's the effect on me of my wood?
with the allusions annotated
In the first place, it makes me feel heavy. Property does have this effect. Property produces men of weight, and it was a man of weight who failed to get into the Kingdom of Heaven He was not wicked, that unfortunate millionaire in the parable2, he was only stout; he stuck out in front, not to mention behind, and as he wedged himself this way and that in the crystalline entrance and bruised his well-fed flanks, he saw beneath him a comparatively slim camel passing through the eye of a needle and being woven into the robe of God. The Gospels all through couple stoutness and slowness They point out what is perfectly obvious, yet seldom realized: that if you have a lot of things you cannot move about a lot, that furniture requires dusting, dusters require servants, servants require insurance stamps, and the whole tangle of them makes you think twice before you accept an invitation to dinner or go for a bathe in the Jordan3. Sometimes the Gospels proceed further and say with Tolstoy4 that property is sinful; they approach the difficult ground of asceticism here, where I cannot follow them. But as to the immediate effects of property on people, they just show straightforward logic. It produces men of weight. Men of weight cannot, by definition, move like the lightning from the East unto the West, and the ascent of a fourteen-stone bishop5 into a pulpit is thus the exact antithesis of the coming of the Son of Man. My wood makes me feel heavy.
In the second place, it makes me feel it ought to be larger. The other day I heard a twig snap in it. I as annoyed at first, for I thought that someone was blackberrying, and depreciating the value of the undergrowth. On coming nearer, I saw it was not a man who had trodden on the twig and snapped it, but a bird, and I felt pleased. My bird. The bird was not equally pleased. Ignoring the relation between us, it took flight as soon as it saw the shape of my face, and flew straight over the boundary hedge into a field, the property of Mrs. Henessy, where it sat down with a loud squawk. It had become Mrs. Henessy's bird. Something seemed grossly amiss here, something that would not have occurred had the wood been larger. I could not afford to buy Mrs. Henessy out, I dared not murder her, and limitations of this sort beset me on every side. Ahab6did not want that vineyard--he only needed it to round off his property, preparatory to plotting a new curve-- and all the land around my wood has become necessary to me in order to round off the wood. A boundary protects. But--poor little thing--the boundary ought in its turn to be protected. Noises on the edge of it. Children throw stones. A little more, and then a little more, until we reach the sea. Happy Canute! 7Happier Alexander! 8And after all, why should even the world be the limit of possession? A rocket containing a Union Jack, will, it is hoped, be shortly fired at the moon. Mars. Sirius. Beyond which...But these immensities ended by saddening me. I could not suppose that my wood was the destined nucleus of universal dominion--it is so very small and contains no mineral wealth beyond the blackberries. Nor was I comforted when Mrs. Henessy's bird took alarm for the second time and flew clean away from us all, under the belief that it belonged to itself.
In the third place, property makes its owner feel that he ought to do something to it. Yet he isn't sure what. A restlessness comes over him a vague sense that he has a personality to express--the same sense which, without any vagueness, leads the artist to an act of creation. Sometimes I think I will cut down such trees as remain in the wood, at other times I want to fill up the gaps between them with new trees. Both impulses are pretentious and empty. They are not honest movements towards moneymaking or beauty. They spring from a foolish desire to express myself and from an inability to enjoy what I have got. Creation, property, enjoyment form a sinister trinity in the human mind. Creation and enjoyment are both very, very good, yet they are often unattainable without a material basis, and at such moments property pushes itself in as a substitute, saying, "Accept me instead--I'm good enough for all three." It is not enough. It is, as Shakespeare9 said of lust, "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame": 10it is "Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream." Yet we don't know how to shun it. It is forced on us by our economic system as the alternative to starvation. It is also forced on us by an internal defect in the soul, by the feeling that in property may lie the germs of self-development and of exquisite or heroic deeds. Our life on earth is, and ought to be material and carnal. But we have not yet learned to manage our materialism and carnality properly; they are still entangled with the desire for ownership, where (in the words of Dante11) "Possession is one with loss."
And this brings us to our fourth and final point: the blackberries. Blackberries are not plentiful in this meagre grove, but they are easily seen from the public footpath which traverses it, and all too easily gathered. Foxgloves, too--people will pull up the foxgloves, and ladies of an educational tendency even grub for toadstools to show them on the Monday in class. Other ladies, less educated, roll down the bracken in the arms of their gentlemen friends. There is paper, there are tins. Pray, does my wood belong to me or doesn't it? And, if it does, should I not own it best by allowing no one else to walk there? There is a wood near Lyme Regis,12 also cursed by a public footpath, where the owner has not hesitated on this point. He has built high stone walls each side of the path, and has spanned it by bridges, so that the public circulate like termites while he gorges on the blackberries unseen. He really does own his wood, this able chap. Dives13 in Hell did pretty well, but the gulf dividing him from Lazarus shall come to this in time. I shall wall in and fence out until I really taste the sweets of property. Enormously stout, endlessly avaricious, pseudocreative, intensely selfish, I shall weave upon my forehead the quadruple crown of possession until those nasty Bolshies14come and take it off again and thrust me aside into the outer darkness.
1The British first came to India in 1608 and remained until 1947 when India was granted independence. The movement to gain independence was led by Mahata Ghandi whose primary tactic was civil disobedience. The book that Forster is alluding to is A Passage to India (1924).
2Matthew 19:24 "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
3 The Jordan is the river in which John the Baptist christened repentant sinners.
4Tolstoy is a Russian writer and philosopher, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. This is an apparent reference to a short story by Tolstoy entitled "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"
5A stone is a British unit of weight; 14 stone equals 196 pounds.
6Ahab -- "Ninth century B.C. Pagan king of Israel and husband of Jezebell who, according to the Old testament, was overthrown by Jehu" (American)
7Canute -- "Known as “the Great.” 994?-1035. King of England (1016-1035), Denmark (1018-1035), and Norway (1028-1035) whose reign, at first brutal, was later marked by wisdom and temperance. He is the subject of many legends" (American).
8Alexander -- "Known as “Alexander the Great.” 356-323 B.C.. King of Macedonia (336-323) and conquerer of Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia. His reign marked the beginning of the Hellenistic Age" (American).Forester takes both Canute and Alexander as examples of men who were never content with the land they possessed, but who always wanted more. Alexander is sometimes described as having conqured all the known world, so vast had become his empire.
9Shakespeare -- William. "1564-1616. English playwright and poet whose body of works is considered the greatest in English literature. His plays, many of which were performed at the Globe Theatre in London, include historical works, such as Richard II, comedies, including Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It, and tragedies, such as Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. He also composed 154 sonnets. The earliest collected edition of his plays, the First Folio, contained 36 plays and was published posthumously" (1623) (American).
10A sonnet by William Shakespeare.
Th' Expense Of Spirit In A Waste Of Shame
11Dante A·li·ghie·ri -- "1265-1321. Italian poet whose masterpiece, The Divine Comedy (completed 1321), details his visionary progress through Hell and Purgatory, escorted by Virgil, and through Heaven, guided by his lifelong idealized love Beatrice" (American).
12Lyme Regis -- A resort city in the county of Dorset on the southwest coast of England.
13Dives -- "A man of great wealth. [Middle English, from Latin dºves" (American).
14Bolshies -- "Bol·she·vik -- A member of the left-wing majority group of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party that adopted Lenin's theses on party organization in 1903. b. A member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party that seized power in that country in November 1917. c. A member of a Marxist-Leninist party or a supporter of one; a Communist. Also called Bolshevist. 2. Often bolshevik. An extreme radical: a literary bolshevik. [Russian Bol'shevik, from bol'she, comparative of bol'sho¹, large" (American). A key principle of the Communist Party was the abolution of private ownership of property. Industries were owned and run by the state. Individual farms were united into collectives.
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